Golf is widely regarded as the most difficult sport known to man. One of the greatest British golfers ever, Ted Ray, once said “Golf is a fascinating game. It has taken me nearly 40 years to realize that I can’t play it.” It is a game rife with failure and regarded as a test of character and the psyche as much as any pastime on the planet.
At the same time, it is completely addictive and players spend literally their entire lives chasing the tantalizing feeling of success. For golf to be so difficult and so punishing and unforgiving, the rewards have to be that much greater, and many devoted followers of the game prove that there is some satisfaction to be had by teeing it up year after year in search of a seemingly perpetually moving goal line that nobody ever reaches. Those who do, do so for seemingly only a few shots or a few days or a few weeks at a time before they are back searching again.
So why is golf so hard, what makes it that way, and does it have to be that way forever? Let’s take a look!
Is Golf Difficult?
Subjectively, golf is considered by many to be the biggest sporting challenge on the planet. So much of it seems innocuous - there is no defender trying to steal your ball or block your shot, there is nobody hurling the ball at you full speed, and there is no clock to race against. The ball is just sitting there. It’s entirely up to you to decide what it does. And yet even for very good players success is defined by a result that is really anything reasonably close to what we were envisioning on a given shot, and almost never exactly what we intended.
There is no easier way to make a professional athlete look completely foolish than to take a baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or even tennis player and put a golf club in their hands. Some of the most gifted, fluid, natural athletes on the planet instantly look like cavemen wildly flailing at a rock the moment you turn them loose on a golf ball. It really is astounding how much goes into a successful golfing motion.
Even accomplished players who have had a club in their hands seemingly almost every day since birth consider the game to be brutally difficult on the vast majority of their days on the course, even when they play well.
So, yes, golf is difficult, and it’s got a huge learning curve but it never really feels less difficult because the better you get, the higher you set your expectations. This is the life that a golfer signs up for, but objectively, since we know the difficulty to be proven over time, perhaps the key may lie in adjusting our expectations.
Is Golf Hard Physically?
This is a relative question. Compared to other sports golf can be dramatically less physically demanding. In almost no other sport will you see people playing well into their older years.
The hardest part about golf becomes the amount of walking, for most players. This is true at the professional level and for amateurs. Luckily, amateurs always have the option of taking a cart (there can still be significant walking, though!) and Champions Tour golfers also have this option.
The other main drawback physically is that there is a chance of injury in golf. The main issues are back and wrist injuries, but these can be avoided for the most part with swing mechanics and knowing when to take a rest.
Why Is The Golf Swing So Hard
The golf swing is so hard because the game is set up to where there is almost no margin for error. Many have quipped that the game is hard “because the ball is on the ground.” This is definitely a big factor, as depending on the lie, there is as little as a few millimeters between hitting the ground first and blading the ball.
The forgiveness heel-to-toe isn’t much better. The sweet spots on most golf clubs are about the size of a dime. Now try swinging a club longer than your arms at 60 to 120 miles per hour and try to contact the ball on that dime. It’s kind of a preposterous idea, really, yet when it does happen the results are so mesmerizing that it keeps us coming back for more.
The reality is that golf is the ultimate risk/reward, gamblers game. Everybody is suffering a lot of mediocre results or losses for the chance of that big payoff, at all levels. The parameters of the game are set up so that the clubs and ball are at the very edge of the limit of what a human athlete with constant training can pull off, and set up to where they can pull that off just often enough to make the game worthwhile. But they are also set up with clubs and balls that produce the most majestic feels, sounds, and visuals of watching a ball soar through the air and track towards its target.
Why Is Golf So Hard Mentally
Moe Norman once said “the hardest golf course you’ll ever play is six inches long” and pointed to his temples, signifying that we are the ones who make the game hard (see the conversation in the video above). As we’ve touched on, it’s no secret that golf is hard, but in failing to accept this fact we make it dramatically more difficult. Expectations are completely unreasonable for most golfers and the pressure that creates makes it even less likely that they will play up to their capabilities.
In really looking for the root of what makes golf so hard mentally, there are two things that come to the forefront. First of all the rewards of a good shot feel so good, that players chase it more than any other sport. Secondly, humans crave consistency. The human brain is happy when there is some kind of equilibrium, and steadiness. We see that restaurants that deliver exactly what their customers expect every single time are the most successful, for example. In golf, you literally never get that! It is psychologically exhausting because all golfers always go through cycles where they cannot miss and then suddenly, inexplicably, without seemingly any reason, go through periods where they are completely lost.
Brooks Koepka summed it up best when he said "Golf's so crazy because when you have it, you feel like you're never gonna lose it. And when you don't have it, you feel like you're never gonna get it."
How To Make Golf Easier And More Fun
Realizing that psychological hurdles are part of what makes golf so demanding, we can have a big advantage if we embrace the challenge of the game and learn to enjoy the process - because nobody ever truly “gets there”, and if they do, it’s not for long before “the process” starts again. So there are a multitude of things to take into consideration and find enjoyment in these things as much as the successes on the course:
There is a bizarre resistance amongst adult golfers when it comes to taking lessons and practicing. Granted, time is an issue, but everyone who plays golf spends significant time and money on golf. By FAR the best time and best money you can spend in the entire game is on lessons from a top quality teacher. It’s not even close.
The best situation is if you can find a coach who you can build a relationship with and let them get to know you and your tendencies and limitations over time as you learn to build a functional model for your swing based on good fundamentals, and not just a quick-fix.
Spend 80% Of Your Practice Time On Short Game
For golfers, the vast majority of shots come inside 100 yards. For high and even mid handicap players, the vast VAST majority of shots come inside 100 yards. The biggest percentage of these come chipping and putting. Meanwhile most golfers, if they practice at all, will spend 90 to 100% of their time on the driving range hitting full speed shots and maybe hit a couple of putts before playing.
The best players unanimously reverse this ratio, spending at about 70-80% of their time on their short game. While this makes sense even for a player like Tiger Woods, who has always stuck by this ratio, because it’s most relevant to lowering scores … the really interesting part is that for a high handicapper or beginner it’s actually going to help your long game a lot more than hitting full shots on the range! Tiger Woods has also famously said that he thinks everyone should learn the game from the hole, out.
This means first learn how to putt, and get really good at it. This teaches you a LOT of important things about the whole game, such as how to pick a target, go through a shot routine, consistently set up to the ball and aim, amongst other things.
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As we start to work backwards to chipping and pitching you have a real chance at developing a feel for what creates low shots, what creates high shots, what creates good contact, what creates spin, what creates roll out, etc. while still solidifying the fundamentals above.
Finally, hitting half-wedge and three-quarters-wedge shots from 50 to 100 yards is the place where you really learn to strike the ball consistently, and these skills learning to make solid contact every time will actually work wonders in your long game way more than getting frustrated trying to hit 50 drivers in a row on the range and figure out what’s going wrong or why you can’t take your range game to the course.
As we’ve mentioned, golf is a game of failure. It’s going to be a very long journey in golf if you cannot let the bad breaks and bad swings disappear in the rear view very quickly. There’s always the next shot, and an opportunity to do something really fun. The best golfers say they have an extremely short memory. And remember, hitting a bad shot is really just an opportunity to make up for it with a really fun one!
One of the things golfers, even pro golfers, are woefully awful at is expectation management. Whether it’s because we feel like there’s no reason we can’t pull off our best shot every single time or because all we watch on TV are not just the best players in the world, but the ones being shown on TV on Sundays are the sub set of those elite players who HAPPEN to be having one of their best few weeks of the season or their career at that moment … golfers have ridiculous expectations.
Let’s look at a few cold hard facts to try to change when we should actually be disappointed with golf shot or not and redefine what we call a miss:-PGA TOUR golfers are more likely to miss a putt from 8.5 feet than they are to make it. Yet how many weekend golfers walk away from a missed 10-15 footer shaking their heads or cursing under their breath? It’s actually crazy. Depending on your handicap, if you’re not on TOUR, you should start “expecting” to make a putt only inside about 5-6 feet or less.
- PGA TOUR pros average proximity is 20 feet from the hole on 100-125 yard shots. This means half of their shots are worse than this. Also Tiger Woods, arguably the best iron player in the history of the game, missed the green 20% of the time from 100-110 yards. So for mere mortals like us, what should our expected proximity be? Yet how many will cuss themselves for hitting a ball to 30 feet from 100 yards out in the fairway. If you are mad about that shot and you aren’t on TOUR (or maybe even if you are!) then your expectations are setting yourself up for psychological stress.
- PGA TOUR pros average nearly 70 yards wide dispersion pattern on a 300 yard drive. These are the best players on the planet, using the same driver and ball you can use. Yet how many golfers get mad when they spray a drive or stand on a tee box thinking they have a realistic shot at threading a hazard? If a PGA TOUR player averages a 70 yard dispersion pattern then can we rationally justify being disappointed by anything that stays within 30, 40, or even 50 yards of our intended target line with a driver?
- Golf seems a LOT harder than it really is when you set up goals for yourself that aren’t based on reality.
Use The Right Golf Clubs
There’s very little reason to not use technology that has been developed to help non-professional golfers enjoy the game more. Even many professional golfers are starting to adopt more and more forgiving clubs in their bag as the data proves more and more that the results cannot be denied. At a minimum, use clubs appropriate for your handicap, and realize that many extremely good ball strikers are incorporating some degree of cavity back irons these days.
Even better, find a driver that optimizes your distance and forgiveness and get the right length and lie angles set on your clubs to give yourself the best chance at success. Changing clubs rarely will change your entire game but having the wrong equipment can give you almost no chance at success before you even start.
Choosing the right clubs for your game is a fast way to make the game easier and more fun.
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Learn How Far You Hit Each Club
Distance control is perhaps the #1 skill in golf in all aspects of the game. The numbers on golf clubs are intended to give you a starting point to develop this skill. The very best players not only know their distances with each club, but can change those distances at will.
This begins with knowing how far you hit at least one club, reliably. Then, for high swing-speed players, you can expect to change that distance 12 or 13 yards for every club you go up or down. For lower swing speed players, this number will be more like 10 yard increments.
The biggest thing this does is build confidence. Successful golfers - regardless of what the possible negative outcomes are, walk into each shot clearly believing in the club they have in their hand and are fully committed to that shot. If you are just guessing how hard to swing or how far a club goes, you will never be able to be in this state, and it is this mindset that is almost essential to actually performing on the course, even if it rarely works out the way you envisioned, you have to pick a target, a club, and a swing feel that you can fully commit to before walking into the shot.
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Take A Cart Instead Of Walking
People underestimate how taxing a round of golf can be. As we have touched on, first and foremost, while you might not be running a marathon or going 12 rounds in a boxing match, you are most likely expending a LOT of mental energy. In addition, the elements take their toll and a lack of proper nutrition and hydration (hot dogs and beer don’t count!) will catch up even to somebody who is very in-shape.
One of the best ways to reduce this toll is to take a cart. If you want to walk, you better have a good handle on seeing the big picture and enjoying the experience and the weather and the stroll, but know that consistency is very difficult down the stretch for the walking golfer, which is why TOUR pros are forced to walk. It’s an entirely different game!
Play Golf With Friends
One of the best ways to put the score aside and focus on the bigger picture is to be in good company. Some of the hardest parts of the game are mental and psychological, and being with people you are comfortable with always leads to playing “your game” the best.
Regardless of score, being around people who you can give a hard time to (or get a hard time from) and get something out of the social experience even if things are going south on the scorecard takes a lot of the pressure off.
Consider A Golf Specific Workout Program
You’ll hear golf pros talk about their “golf muscles” and even guys who look skinny as a rail will have developed significant strength in the right places to swing that little 1-pound club as fast and consistently as they can. Regardless of it helping your performance (it will! Training movement patterns without a club in your hand is a great way to build a swing) it will also reduce your chances of fatigue, injury, or both.
Nothing is worse than hitting the 13th or 14th hole and being ready to go home already, or having to take time off with an injury. A golf specific workout program can raise both the ceiling and the floor of your golfing experience.
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The game is just too brutal to not have a sense of humor about it. If you are sucking on a given day, embrace the suck! If it’s not fun, take some time off and start fresh. But always remember, it’s a game. The point of a game, if we aren’t a professional, is to have fun.
Don’t play from tees that aren’t fun for you to play from, don’t play with equipment or people that aren’t fun for you to play with. Life’s too short and there’s too many options out there! Learn to laugh at yourself, and have an extremely short memory when it comes to the bad shots, and savor the good ones!
Golf is hard, there’s no two ways about it. The best athletes (golfers and non-golfers alike) have attested to this fact consistently over the centuries. Since the biggest competitor is yourself, it’s almost impossible to actually reach a place of sustained success, as we just keep wanting to take one more step forward with our game, or preserve our game in a sport that has been a rollercoaster for anyone who’s tried it, since it was invented.
Part of this is basically by design, as golf is set up to give the biggest rewards and also the biggest punishments. It is set up to test the very fringe edge of what the human ability is to move an object great distances through space with absurd accuracy. Understanding this and knowing what we are “up against” can be one of the biggest advantages to enjoying the game. Ben Hogan, perhaps the greatest ball striker ever, said that over 90% of his shots would be imperfect (3 perfect shots per round).
Knowing that golf is set up to be a game of many failures with a few big rewards in between can help us do two things. First of all get a strategy together with our expectations, our practice routine or lessons schedule, our equipment, and our understanding that there needs to be positives taken away even when things don’t go our way - whether it’s a social interaction, a great time in nature, exercise, or having learned something about ourselves or our game. Secondly it teaches us to really savor the fruits when they do come in the form of good shots and good scores.
Nobody has ever solved or perfected the game of golf for more than a few fleeting instants in time. It is in a way a metaphor and a mirror for life and the human experience, and the more we learn to flow with things that are outside of our control and see the biggest picture possible at all times, the better chance we have of enjoying the immersion in the process without getting caught up in the uncertainty of the results, which are never guaranteed. In this light, the game is really only as difficult as we make it.